Above the law How veterans of Russia’s ‘local wars’ privatized political violence at home and broke free from police control
There’s a market for non-state violence in Russia. The industry has different clients (including government authorities) who hire thugs to deal with civic activists, business competitors, and even state officials. In this saturated market, you can find services offered by entrepreneurs with close ties to the Kremlin, officers from the police and Federal Security Service, and a lot of small-time players, like athletes, political strategists, and representatives of religious groups. Meduza special correspondent Liliya Yapparova explains how she managed to order a mass demonstration that drew a hundred men ready to brawl, and how the conflict in eastern Ukraine has spawned a highly developed industry in Russia beyond law enforcement’s control.
The Volunteers’ Union
On November 28, 2017, two young men jumped and viciously beat Konstantin Giryakov, a Russian federal investigator in the Crimean city of Alushta. Less than two years later, in August 2019, a court convicted Alexander Lesnov, the head of the local police anti-corruption branch, of ordering the attack, which was carried out by members of the “Donbass Volunteers’ Union” (SDD) for a fee of 190,000 rubles ($2,980). The two perpetrators were Sergey Staroseltsev and Nikolai Pukhov. All three men got off easy, considering the crime: three years in prison, including time served in pretrial detention. On November 19, 2019, however, Russia’s Supreme Court overturned the rulings and ordered retrials. Pukhov’s lawyer says the judges acted under pressure from the Investigative Committee.
Before his arrest in December 2017, Pukhov reportedly ran for protection to Alexander Borodai, the head of the SDD who once served briefly as the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic’s prime minister. A source familiar with the case told Meduza that the police apprehended Pukhov in Borodai’s office. A few months earlier, Pukhov had participated in a large-scale “military-sports tournament” in a small town in the Kaluga region, organized by the SDD and an unregistered group called the “Confederation of Paramilitary Sports.” The competition was open to male veterans of Russia’s conflicts in eastern Ukraine and Syria between the ages of 18 and 45, and Meduza’s sources say members of the ultra-right “SERB” movement were also invited.
A source close to SDD told Meduza that the Putin administration directly asked Borodai to stage an event to “cheer up” the Donbas veterans.
In a speech at the event, Borodai said the competition was “to prepare people for the new war,” explaining that the war in Ukraine was “just the start of something bigger,” but the tournament’s games were modeled exclusively on domestic political situations.
A former Federal Security Service (FSB) agent told Meduza, “The ‘Volunteer Games’ were conceived as a screening grounds for thugs. [Participants] were observed and hired to carry out tasks, including political jawboning [politicheskii pressing]. It was all Prigozhin’s thing. They let him do it without even asking any questions.”
Four sources, including a former political strategist who once worked for Evgeny Prigozhin against the anti-Kremlin opposition, confirmed to Meduza that the 40 or so tournament participants who showed the greatest skill with violence were organized into groups under Prigozhin’s control and hired to complete “various tasks.” A source close to the FSB says these men are paid to intimidate or discredit different groups and sometimes to target specific individuals and businesses. The same source told Meduza that this hired muscle acts essentially with impunity; the police can’t touch them, and the most the FSB can do is ask that they lay off certain people.
In March 2018, one of these goon squads jumped an activist in Moscow (who asked Meduza not to reveal his name). Five young men attacked him, including one who filmed the beating. According to the activist’s contacts inside the police department and another three sources who spoke to Meduza, the attackers previously competed in a “paramilitary tournament” in a town outside Russia’s Belgorod region.
The man who apparently filmed the attack also appears in videos linking him to a harassment campaign this summer against Moscow opposition politician Lyubov Sobol. She believes this individual is connected to Evgeny Prigozhin’s efforts to monitor and intimidate Alexey Navalny’s supporters at the Anti-Corruption Foundation — a claim bolstered by Meduza’s sources among police officers and Russian mercenaries, who describe the SDD as the “private army” of Prigozhin and Kremlin official Vladislav Surkov.
Another source says the Donbass Volunteers’ Union is basically an employment program and “hub” for veterans of Russia’s “local military conflicts,” putting them to work as thugs and enforcers at home. A former police officer familiar with this industry told Meduza that there are more than a dozen major players in the market nationwide, but either Evgeny Prigozhin or Konstantin Malofeev (a devout Russian Orthodox businessman who is suspected of financing separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk) are behind most of the stunts targeting liberals. They receive the requests, which are passed onto “political strategists,” who then develop an action plan that’s carried out by groups like SDD. A strategist who’s staged demonstrations according to this formula confirmed to Meduza that SDD has worked like this with Prigozhin and Malofeev.
The invisible hand makes a fist
Russian law-enforcement agencies’ loss of supervisory control over the private groups carrying out this “political violence” is something new. Yes, the groups are run by individuals with close ties to the authorities, but they are still private actors. In the past, Meduza’s sources say, the police and the FSB always retained control (unofficially, of course).
Over the past decade, Russia’s Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service have cut funding to departments focused on “operational search” and “counter-extremism,” creating a vacuum in political violence that private actors soon filled. But law-enforcement agencies still have some infrastructure to mobilize thugs, as evidenced by the FSB’s enduring ties to the SERB movement.
Nikolai Zaitsev, one of SERB’s founders, says the group earns small fees for its role at public events. Sources told Meduza that SERB’s reward is small because it receives this money officially from the state in accordance with Interior Ministry orders issued in 2018 to pay rewards for neighborhood-watch services. The policy allows regional police chiefs to issue rewards as high as 500,000 rubles ($7,850), and the deputy interior minister can issue up to 3 million rubles ($47,075), but Meduza’s sources say compensation almost never exceeds 100,000 rubles ($1,570). The money is usually far less, they say, and “freelance agents” often get nothing.
The competition for “thug money” can be fierce. In May 2018, for example, three different far-right groups — SDD, SERB, and the National Liberation Movement — claimed responsibility for disrupting an oppositionist music festival. After scuffling with concertgoers, each group raced to issue the first press release.
Five sources, including former police officers and former SERB members, told Meduza that the FSB is responsible for overseeing the movement. One source with close ties to law enforcement says he was the one who first introduced Igor Beketov (the group's leader, better known as “Gosha Tarasevich”) to the FSB after he came to Russia as a refugee from Ukraine. Nikolai Zaitsev, who helped create SERB, told Meduza, “When they’re handing out 500 and 1,000 rubles for demonstrations at the Nemtsov Bridge, I understand of course that Gosha isn’t paying out of his own pocket.”
But how much money can former FSB assets earn by taking their expertise in “political violence” to the private sector? A strategist who’s worked with Prigozhin’s operation says it’s possible to earn as much as 1 million rubles ($15,690) for a single piece of good information, like tips about an upcoming protest or compromising data about specific politicians, even when the information is never ultimately published.
Another strategist who’s worked for Prigozhin, but failed to win the “contract” to spy on Navalny’s supporters this summer, told Meduza that the surveillance campaign apparently orchestrated by Prigozhin against Lyubov Sobol this summer was bungled because the thugs who followed and harassed Sobol and her family “didn’t go far enough.” “The idea [...] wasn’t bad,” he says, ”but the personnel was very mediocre. They had no sense of humor, and they didn’t reduce her to hysterics.”
The SERB movement has also hired itself out to private clients. In December 2017, together with members of the SDD, it disrupted a screening of “Polet Puli” (Flight of the Bullet), a film about the lives of volunteers in Ukraine’s “Aidar” Battalion. Sources in law enforcement told Meduza that the disruption was ordered by Konstantin Malofeev, whose spokespeople deny the allegations.
The police and FSB have not welcomed the explosion of privately contracted political violence, however, and they’ve embedded assets in the groups responsible. Sometimes, the authorities even go after the clients for these services, allegedly interrogating and beating them.
The fruits of war
Moscow’s conflicts in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have flooded Russia with men adept at violence and specialists who know how to stage and orchestrate violent political operations. One political strategist who worked in Luhansk and presented his ideas to the Kremlin says his vision would have led to greater military successes for the separatists in Ukraine. He argues that the self-declared republics should have been based on “ideologies of total war,” and he advocated papering the streets of Luhansk with signs featuring hate speech against Russians by officials in Kyiv, in an effort to incense them against the Ukrainian government.
Konstantin Kalachev, a political consultant who worked for Russia’s ruling political party for several years, told Meduza that men of violence entered the country’s “political technology mainstream” after 2014: “There was a time when no one would even shake hands with these scumbags, but now their work is called ‘street technology’ and ‘fighting technology,’ and it’s got approval and permission from on high.” Alexey Chadaev, another strategist who’s worked with the authorities, is a bit more circumspect when describing his new colleagues, saying they bring a “distinctive mercenary culture” to “semi-violent public demonstrations.”
Russia’s new market for “semi-violent public demonstrations” is remarkably user-friendly, and it’s entirely possible to hire muscle over the telephone.
Two weeks before Moscow’s City Duma elections in early September, messages started circulating on social media soliciting “tough guys” for participation in a demonstration. The phone number mentioned in the ad was linked to a Telegram account registered to Alexander Fogel, a small-time actor who last surfaced publicly when he spoke in support of Mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s controversial renovations program at public hearings in May 2019.
“If you need out-of-control guys, then they’ll be out of control,” Fogel told Meduza’s correspondent, who called him, posing as a potential client. “There are [sports] fans, and I hire them when I’m asked for aggressive [guys]. I have an arrangement. You want to throw down a little pressure? These sports fans are perfect for some shoving and kicking.” Fogel also told Meduza that he recruits youths from four sources: a sports group, an anarchist society, historical reenactors (mainly Cossack and White Guard enthusiasts), and a “funny little group” that wants to resurrect the USSR.
Meduza’s correspondent arranged for a demonstration of 100 people “ready to use force” for 200,000 rubles ($3,140) — far less than what many sources said it would cost (probably because there was no request for any specific violent acts).
Political strategists in Moscow and St. Petersburg told Meduza that demonstrations involving the use of brute force typically cost between 30,000 and 50,000 rubles ($470 and $785) per person, with half or more of the money going to organizers and just a fraction reaching the actual thugs.
Those who recruit young men for these “actions” often dispatch them from one city to another, to make it harder for locals to identify them, sources told Meduza.
Mikhail Ochkin, a political strategist who’s worked with ultra-right organizations and heads the “National Conservative Movement” (and who tried to disrupt an LGBTQ film festival this July), says he was approached by representatives of Igor Altushkin, the head of the “Russian Copper Company,” which co-sponsored the construction of a cathedral in Yekaterinburg earlier this year that led to mass protests (because locals didn’t want to lose one of the city’s few remaining public parks). Ochkin says he urged Altushkin’s people to seek a compromise with demonstrators, but they “went another way” and supposedly hired “ultra-religious athletes” from the Forty Times Forty movement.
Yekaterinburg isn’t Russia’s only city to flirt with hired thugs, of course. Six sources, including some with ties to City Hall and the police, told Meduza that the Moscow Mayor’s Office tried to recruit some of the city’s “patriotic associations” for a new anti-opposition youth organization modeled on the once prominent pro-Kremlin group “Nashi.”
Nashi used to be considered a radical organization, but the political strategists who cut their teeth fighting in eastern Ukraine are even more comfortable with the use of force, sources told Meduza. One man who worked in the Donbas, having started his career as a strategist in South Ossetia during the 2008 war, describes his attitude about acts of political violence in the following terms: “We’re not political strategists working with the enforcers. We are the enforcers.”
Summary by Kevin Rothrock